One-Minute Book Reviews

December 26, 2008

Are the Best Biographies Sympathetic to Their Subjects? (Quote of the Day / Allen Massie)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:30 pm
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Are the best biographies necessarily sympathetic to their subjects? I had oddly never considered this idea until an unflattering life of Hemingway led the Scottish journalist Allen Massie to write in a recent issue of the Spectator:

“The best biographies are sympathetic. Their authors don’t gloss over their subjects’ failures and faults of character, but they don’t seek to do them down. The biographer who sets out to mock his subjects or diminish their achievements is likely to arouse the reader’s sympathy for them. Lytton Strachey’s four Eminent Victorians have survived his debunking, and Strachey now seems less than any of them. Conversely, and paradoxically, however, the admiring but scrupulous biographer may provoke a contrary response from the reader.”

After I read Massie’s comment, I thought about my favorite biographies, which include James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, Gordon Haight’s George Eliot, Jean Strouse’s Alice James, A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins, and William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory. All are sympathetic to their subjects. Yet there must be a good biography of Hitler, Stalin or Saddam Hussein, though you could hardly write a “sympathetic” one. Have I missed the good, sympathetic biographies of those men? Or are the lives of tyrants the exceptions to Massie’s rule?

What books have you read that support or challenge Massie’s argument?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. Another exception to the rule would be humorous biographies. I can’t think of them off the top of my head, but there have been a couple that I have read that purposely poke fun to add humor to the book, and it doesn’t retract from the story at all.


    Comment by eBookGuru — December 26, 2008 @ 1:22 pm | Reply

  2. Interesting idea. Humorous biographies may involve dead people, because it’s legally safer to satirize them, if that might help to refresh your memory …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 26, 2008 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  3. I don’t like reading spiteful biographies. Too much like celebrity gossip magazines!
    I suppose it’s because (maybe like most other people?) I tend to read biographies about people I admire. Biography isn’t my favourite genre, but I’m usually interested in bios about my favourite authors, musicians and artists, and the occasional Great Man of History piques my interest. I want those biographies to be truthful, but to be empathetic (rather than sympathetic) about the subject’s failings and foibles. When appropriate, I want the biographer to recognise that the subject was a product of their time and may have held beliefs and attitudes that might be offensive now – but were not back then. To me, knowing the subject also means knowing the context of the life as well – thta’s part of the scholarship that biography demands. I have just read Obsessive Genius, the Inner Life of Marie Curie (a Great Woman of Science!) and while making it clear that she was far from a perfect mother, the author shows that Curie was motivated by very high ideals – which just didn’t happen to fit very well with having children.
    Even when I reconsider more scholarly interests from my days at university, I feel the same way. Are biographies about tryants a special category? Well, I can’t imagine an empathetic bio about Hitler either, but I would want a biography of him to try to explain the forces that made him what he was, and let’s face it, he was successful with what he was because there was public support for it. No different to Mugabe in Zimbabwe today, surrounded by people who benefit from his actions and safe from external intervention because most people don’t care.

    Comment by Lisa Hill — December 27, 2008 @ 12:08 am | Reply

    • Lisa —
      Thanks for making the helpful distinction between “spiteful” and “critical.” Most serious readers want biographies to be truthful, and that means pointing out when the subject made mistakes or revealed unflattering personal traits. Biographies often come across as a whitewash when their authors are unwilling or unable to deal both with the failures and the successes of their subjects.

      But you can be critical of some of your subject’s actions or policies without being spiteful about them. I may see the spite more in memoirs, especially family memoirs, than in biographies. But it’s no more appealing there than in biographies. Since I read your comment, I’ve been trying to think of one really spiteful biography that I thought was first-rate, and I can’t. Which seems to prove your point.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 27, 2008 @ 2:28 pm | Reply

  4. Yes, it’s the ‘truth’ we want, tarnished neither by malice nor prudish censorship. When we think of the hagiographies written by surviving relations of the famous – usually accompanied by a burning of any papers deemed unsuitable so that we can never really glean the mistakes or unflattering personal traits – it’s especially trying. Was it Jane Austen or one of the Brontes that suffered this fate? I can’t remember…

    Comment by Lisa Hill — December 27, 2008 @ 6:12 pm | Reply

    • Lisa — Jane Austen definitely. Her sister, Cassandra, has earned the wrath of generations of scholars for burning many of her letters. But something similar could have happened with the Brontes, too.

      Could we be losing the concept of hagiography altogether? So many celebrity (and other) biographies are so sycophantic, I wonder if a lot of people don’t see that as normal.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 28, 2008 @ 8:59 pm | Reply

  5. I will say up front that I am not a good critic, so to debate this question requires some expertise.
    What I can offer is what I know from experience. The best biography I read was A. E. Hotchner’s Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir [ ] and a special treat I found: A. E. Hotchner | Dear Papa, Dear Hotch: Celebrating Ernest Hemingway | WGBH Forum Network | Free Online Lectures: where “Hotchner discusses his newly collected correspondences with Ernest Hemingway, and shares stories about his good friend’s public and private life.” [ ].

    Comment by Michael Pokocky — December 28, 2008 @ 10:36 am | Reply

  6. Best to avoid popular culture, Jan – it’s soooooooo depressing.
    Who could have imagined the inane uses to which universal literacy would be put *sigh*?

    Comment by Lisa Hill — December 28, 2008 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

  7. And this is the worst time of the year for me to try avoid it, because in the end of February I announce the finalists for the Delete Key Awards for the year’s worst writing in books. So I actually have to go back to some of the worst ones of 2008 to make sure I didn’t overlook any (un)worthies …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — December 29, 2008 @ 9:32 pm | Reply

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